Poongsan: Film Review

A political romance-thriller of raw power, that deals with extremes.

Yoon Kye-sang, Kim Gyu-ri and Kim Jong-soo star in director Juhn Jai-hong's political romance-thriller.

SEOUL – Written and produced by Kim Ki-duk, and helmed by his former assistant director Juhn Jai-hong (Beautiful), Poongsan injects new life into Korean North-South espionage thrillers with its edgy portrayal of a mysterious man who crosses the DMZ to provide a unique kind of courier service. From its heart-wrenching opening shot to its breathtaking end, the film is unfaltering in its momentum and often unbearable in its intensity, delivering shocks to the system as it runs the extraordinary gamut of love, longing, jealousy, hate, desperation, intrigue, cruelty and madness.

Favorable audience responses along with critical accolades have propelled Poongsan to one of the four biggest hits domestically, during a month swelling with Hollywood blockbusters. Kim Ki-duk’s role in the project would be a passport to many international markets, especially after his award in Cannes.

The nameless protagonist (Yoon Kye-sang) is a trafficker who crosses the high security border between North and South to deliver anything from cherished digital videos, personal keepsakes, to refugees for families separated by the civil war. He is commissioned to go to Pyongyang to smuggle In-oak (Kim Gyuri), the lover of a high profile North Korean defector (Kim Jong-soo) to the South. An inexplicable frisson occurs on the way, and their unspoken, yet uncontrollable love becomes a catalyst for a powder keg situation on a government level.

The film’s angle on North-South relations is compellingly darker and more cynical than typically simplified and ideologically slanted Korean spy thrillers. Agents from both sides are represented as thugs nearly indistinguishable in their skullduggery and incompetence. The whole absurdity of their opposition is symbolized in a savagely humorous scene where they are thrown into a dungeon and end up tearing at each other like gutter rats.

In fact, the theme is betrayal at various levels. As In-oak, the defector and even some agents gradually learn the futility of loyalty (personal or political) and the price of “freedom,” a sense of abject disillusionment prevails.

This makes the trafficker almost an alternative hero for having no allegiances. In-oak compares him with the logo of his favorite cigarette “Poongsan”: “like a dog that’s lost its owner” (the Korean title is Poongsan Dog) but he is more of a lone wolf. Armed with SWAT skills, he never utters a syllable and one never finds out where he’s from, which side he’s on (not even when tortured). His motive for crossing borders at such risks is never articulated until the provocative ending, which hints at a reason both surprisingly innocent and deeply humane. 

The multifarious screenplay is heaped with drastic twists and coincidences, revealing the same credibility issues that plague many of Kim’s own works. Despite the broad, often inconsistent range of tones, Juhn’s focus on the characters’ physical instincts infuses most scenes with riveting urgency and visual impact. Juhn shares his mentor Kim’s gift in representing violence in a shocking, subversive style, making bodily hazards seem extremely palpable. There are torture scenes that require an iron gut to stomach, yet the worst moments play like a black comedy. Dialogue, which is often stilted, thankfully plays a subordinate role.

At the center governing all events is a love that erupts out of nowhere, defying politics, morality or even common sense. The clumsy way in which the lovers come together actually gives the relationship its heady unpredictability, climaxing in a kiss scene that is electrifying because it’s happens in the most unlikely circumstance.

Without any dialogue or character history to fall back on, Yoon cultivates a bon sauvage image with animalistic grunts and physical dexterity. Kim’s way of interpreting In-oak’s headstrong yet wide-eyed nature is to be a continuous nag. If not for the burning intensity Yoon brings to their love scenes, one would be hard pressed to feel sympathy for her.

Sales: Finecut Co Ltd.
Production company: Kim Ki-duk Film Production
Cast: Yoon Kye-sang, Kim Gyu-ri, Kim Jong-soo
Director: Juhn Jai-hong
Screenwriter-original idea-executive producer: Kim Ki-duk
Producer: Jeon Youn-chan
Director of photography: Lee Jeong-in
Production designer: Yang Hoon-sub
Music: Park In-young
Costume designer: Yu Cheong
Editor: Shin Cheol
No rating, 121 minutes